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Blinken lands in China for tense talks as U.S. sanctions loom

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second right) dines with US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink (right), US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns (front second left) and others at the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant at the Yu Gardens in Shanghai on April 24, 2024.  (Mark Schiefelbein/Pool/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Iain Marlow Bloomberg News

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in China on a mission to press Beijing on issues including its support for Russia and industrial overcapacity, with the threat of new U.S. sanctions looming over the visit.

The top U.S. diplomat will hold talks with senior Communist Party officials in the economic hub of Shanghai on Thursday, before heading to Beijing for a final day of meetings, including a possible face-to-face with President Xi Jinping.

Blinken will try to convince Chinese officials to halt trade that has enabled Russia’s defense industrial base to rebuild despite Western curbs imposed after its invasion of Ukraine. Also on the agenda are Beijing’s territorial claims over the self-ruled island of Taiwan and its aggression in the South China Sea, a senior U.S. official said.

The hawkish U.S. election season is testing a stabilization in ties brokered by Xi and President Joe Biden last year. The U.S. leader last week blasted Beijing as “xenophobic,” vowed more tariffs on China and opened a probe into the Asian nation’s ship industry.

Beijing’s response to the latest trade salvos has been limited to symbolic tit-for-tat tariffs, as Xi focuses on wooing foreign investors and reviving an economy battling a protracted property slowdown.

“You often see the most activist Chinese response at times when they’re feeling empowered and strong,” said Jude Blanchette, an expert on China and foreign investment at Washington’s Center for International and Strategic Studies. “Right now, the leadership in Beijing is having to put out a lot of fires.”

Adding to those concerns is the threat of new sanctions. Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told officials in Beijing that Chinese banks helping Russia’s war effort could face fresh U.S. sanctions, as she raised concerns to top leaders about China’s overcapacity. Ahead of Blinken’s visit, Chinese state media called out the contradiction in trying to stabilize ties while ramping up trade rivalry.

“Why does the U.S. side turn a normal visit into what seems like an ultimatum?” the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper wrote in an editorial. “If this issue is not resolved, it is like walking at night blindfolded and it will easily lead to mistakes and even danger,” the commentary warned.

Blinken landed in China just hours after the Senate passed a $95 billion emergency aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, which could also lead to the ban of popular video-sharing app TikTok unless it divests from its Chinese parent company ByteDance Ltd. Biden has said he will sign the package into law.

The U.S. delegation will seek to clearly communicate policies to Beijing in order to prevent any escalation of tensions. In recent weeks, the U.S. met with European and Asian allies to discuss China. Blinken’s trip also coincides with the U.S. and Philippines conducting military exercises near the disputed South China Sea and Taiwan.

U.S. officials are unlikely to walk away from meetings this week with many concrete breakthroughs or deliverables. While there are signs the relationship has stabilized, the two countries have continued to dispute over issues spanning trade, technology, human rights, Ukraine, North Korea and the Middle East, where Blinken has sought to enlist Beijing’s help to pressure Iran.

The large delegation traveling with Blinken underscores the varied topics for discussion in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

He is accompanied by Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs; Sarah Beran, National Security Council senior director for China and Taiwan affairs; Elizabeth Allen, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs; Todd Robinson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs; as well as Nathan Fick, ambassador-at-large for cyberspace and digital policy.